Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
October 22, 2014
SPACE, Evanston, IL
By Liz Mandeville
Photos: Roman Sobus
On a Wednesday night in October, DJs from WNUR radio, assorted blues musicians and a few fans filed expectantly into Evanston’s premier music showcase room, SPACE, to hear a 90-minute set by a 30-year-old guitarist, singer/songwriter and newly minted star. Taking the stage at exactly 8 p.m., wearing all black attire and playing a custom built Clevenger guitar through a Fender DeVille amp, Jarekus Singleton went to work. No jokes, no kidding around, this guy came prepared with a tight set that flowed one song into the next and it was pretty serious business.
Working with Mr. Singleton were Ben Sterling on bass, Sam Brady on Keys and brother Jackiris Singleton was playing drums. They looked young and sleepy but they played with easy familiarity and a style that is completely different from the traditional Chicago Blues sound that Alligator is known for.
At age 30, this young artist has earned some pretty impressive achievements, enough of them to get the attention of Alligator President, Bruce Iglauer. Jarekus competed at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis for four years in a row (2011-2014). And he won multiple music awards in his homestate of Mississippi, including the Guitar Center's statewide "King of the Blues" contest. So I was keen to see what made Jarekus Singleton so special.
Leading his four-piece touring band into the first tune, a funk groove, we’re treated to a first rate organ solo by Sam Brady. Jarekus sings that his “bills are all paid.” Must be nice; it’s also an unusual thing for a blues man to sing, especially one so young as Alligator’s latest great hope for the blues. Not your grandpa’s “broke and disgusted” blues, the subject matter of Jarekus’ songs has a modern bent with clever lyrics peppered with contemporary cultural references. He’s singing about what he knows and he’s playing with funky fervor. As the song ends and the crowd begins to applaud, he brings the band back in to do a reprise, this time adding wah-wah peddle for a funky-psychedelic twist that just has the merest hint of Hendrix.
The next song has a decided jungle drum beat from Jackirus. Meanwhile Jarekus on guitar is rocking out with lots of wah-wah peddle. If I closed my eyes I could be listening to Chicagoan, Toronzo Cannon here. I really liked the big, purposeful bottom Ben Sterling puts down on that bass. Like Robert Stroger, Ben’s the glue that holds the whole thing together as the band finds their way to warm and plays variations on the groove, following Jarekus through that beat like a black pied piper leading the children. I see so much promise and potential in Jarekus Singleton, it’s like watching the flowering of Shemekia Copeland in her early Alligator years.
At this point Jarekus stops to introduce the band. It turns out that along with Jackirus Singleton being his brother, Ben Sterling is also Jarekus’ cousin. He says that Jackirus hadn’t played the drums in years but had been lured back to the stage when Jarekus got the call to start touring. So suddenly his “hesitation blues” made sense. Once the young brother warmed up and got comfortable he played some very fine drums.
The next song, “Singing the Blues,” featured another nice organ solo and a tight, unexpected arrangement that made me think of the great soul-funky work of Chicagoan, Sir Walter Scott, who did arrangements for The Platinum Band, the World Band, Tyrone Davis and is currently working his magic for Shirley Johnson. I appreciated the complex transitions Jarekus worked out with that Fender Deville.
Slow blues was next. “You Put Me Through Hell” featured nice vocal harmonies that come from singing together over years in a family band. Strong yet understated, their voices blended to soften the rock attack of the guitar. Letting the music breathe a little bit, Jarekus took his time and squeezed every possible emotion from his guitar. Loud applause from the sparse but appreciative crowd followed.
In the pause between songs, Jarekus, a native of Misissippi, told the crowd that the blues hadn’t been his first choice of career. In fact he’d wanted to be an NBA star instead and had put the guitar down for almost 15 years to play basketball. Right at the moment his future seemed assured, injury knocked him out of his top seed position and right back to the blues. His song, “Keep Pushing,” illustrated how he handled his dark time between the mountain peaks of life’s great mystery; from certain fame and money to where he’s at now, bills all paid.
I think the discipline of the sporting life; the necessary drive and ambition coupled with single-mindedness are what’s differentiated Jarekus from the rest of the young blues players out there today. You can just look at this man and see the determination in his eyes. He’s a goal oriented, focused performer who gets what he’s after, whether it’s a bucket or a blue note. He’s also interesting to watch on stage, and seems to have an uncanny knack for posing himself, composing the scene with the other players to make interesting tableau. You can’t take a blocked or bad photo of this band. By the end of the next song Jackirus is really bringing it on the drums and the room is starting to buzz.
Then they played the song that’s been getting a lot of radio airplay, "Heros," a scathing indictment of a former hero that let his jealously and ego get in the way when confronted by the younger man’s success. The song is almost Latin in its feel, like a Latin Jazz-blues-rock fusion. One of the people in our party leads a Cuban band in Chicago. Lise Jilly, was so completely excited by the interspersion of such a unique element into a blues song that she started counting it for us to explain what he was doing! More than recycling a few Carlos Santana licks, this song doesn’t have any relationship with the blues backbeat, it’s something completely different. Afro-Cuban blues.
The set ended with the most blues of all the selections, a swinging lump that had a great danceable beat. Applause, lights up, and Jarekus came out to thank the crowd, take photos and sign autographs. In our short, post-show conversation he said his music was influenced by the stuff he’d heard growing up, a lot of hip-hop, pop music, and the modern diaspora. He said his uncle Tony had started him playing bass in church at age nine. He stressed “the significance of family.” Being able to tour and make music with his cousin and his brother and to have other family members as support staff in their musical camp was the thing that made it all work for him.
Once the fans were satisfied, the band grabbed their gear and headed to the Kingston Mines to hear some real Chicago Blues. God willing, Jarekus Singleton and his family band will be around making their unique contribution for years to come.